The great obsession: Gaelic football managers in it for the long haul

Christy O'Connor looks at the modern breed of bainisteoir, who spend a lifetime chasing their GAA dreams 
The great obsession: Gaelic football managers in it for the long haul

Cork manager Billy Morgan and Kerry manager Jack O'Connor during the 2006 Munster SFC final replay at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

ON the night Mickey Harte was ratified as the Tyrone minor manager in 1991, Paul Dorris of the county board was among the first to congratulate him.

“You’ve taken on the most difficult job in management,” said Dorris. 

Harte knew exactly what he meant. His time with the team would be short. There were no back doors. His side would have one chance to stand or fall.

In Harte’s first year, Tyrone were beaten by Donegal in an Ulster final by one point, but Harte didn’t want the experience to be short; he remained in the minor job for most of the decade.

Tyrone won an Ulster title in 1993 but Harte looked on the way out the job after his side lost to Fermanagh in 1996, which was deemed sacrilege by the greater Tyrone public. 

They wanted Harte out, but he survived and thrived; Tyrone reached the 1997 All-Ireland final, before returning to win it a year later.

Harte subsequently took over the U21s, who he guided to successive All-Ireland victories in 2000 and 2001, before being appointed to the senior job at the end of 2002.

Harte is one of the greatest managers in the history of the GAA but one of his greatest achievements is his consistent longevity. 

Now Louth manager, one of the most unheralded statistics around Harte’s career is that this is his 31st successive season as an inter-county manager. Last Sunday, Harte guided Louth back into Division 3.

Some of those alongside Harte in the pantheon of great football managers have also been defined as much by their longevity as their consistent excellence and remarkable achievements; Sean Boylan spent 23 years as Meath manager.

In terms of sheer longevity though, Mick O’Dwyer is un-paralleled – between 1975-2012, O’Dwyer was an inter-county senior manager for 35 of 38 seasons.

That level of involvement is even greater again when considering O’Dwyer had only retired as a player in 1974 after a glittering career that spanned two decades.

O’Dwyer’s huge success will always define his legacy but such a fanatical level of obsession is apparent now amongst some modern managers. Kieran McGeeney is now in his 14th consecutive season in a managerial-coaching role.

Shortly after McGeeney retired as a revered Armagh player in 2007, he was appointed Kildare manager, where he spent six years. In 2014, McGeeney joined Paul Grimley’s Armagh management team, while also becoming a member of the Tipperary hurlers back-room team. 

In 2015, McGeeney took over from Grimley as manager and has been there ever since.

Considering McGeeney went straight from an illustrious 16-year inter-county playing career, McGeeney has been involved consistently in the inter-county senior game for the last 30 years.

Going straight from a playing career into senior management denied McGeeney the opportunity to cut his managerial teeth at underage level, which is how some of the best modern managers shaped their philosophy.

Jack O’Connor is unique in how he went from an All-Ireland winning U21 manager to a multiple All-Ireland senior winning manager, then becoming a double All-Ireland winning minor manager, before getting back involved as a senior inter-county boss again.

O’Connor began his trade with the Kerry vocational schools in the early 1990s, winning a couple of All-Irelands. 

Then Páidí Ó Sé roped him in with the county U21s in 1993 for four years.

When Páidí went to the seniors in 1996, he brought O’Connor along. O’Connor stayed as a selector until after the 1997 All-Ireland senior win before pulling out and taking the U21 job. 

Kerry won that 1998 All-Ireland U21 title before reaching another final in 1999. Then O’Connor re-joined Ó Sé in 2000 and 2001, winning another All-Ireland in 2000. 

O’Connor subsequently spent seven years as Kerry senior manager, in two different terms, which yielded three All-Irelands. A year after stepping away from the senior job, O’Connor was back with the minors, who he led to successive All-Irelands in 2014 and 2015.

After stepping down from the minor job, O’Connor went straight back in with the U21s, before taking over the U20s, and then taking over Kildare. Totting up the numbers, O’Connor has now been involved at inter-county level for 24 of the last 29 seasons.

O’Connor is back on the circuit again now but that fanatical trend is also evident amongst some of the new breed of inter-county football managers; since joining Jim McGuinness as a coach in 2011, Rory Gallagher has been involved as a coach or manager with Donegal, Donegal U21s, Fermanagh and now Derry for the last 11 years.

Sometimes though, that obsession goes to a whole different level again. 

Tipperary’s manager David Power celebrates beating Cork. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Tipperary’s manager David Power celebrates beating Cork. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

In the days after Tipperary’s historic Munster title win against Cork last November, a photo appeared on social media of a five-year-old David Power posing as a mascot with the Tipperary footballers from a game in 1988.

Power has effectively been tied to Tipp football since the cradle; in the Power household sits a picture of a one-year-old David perched in the cup after Tipperary had won the 1984 Munster minor title. 

Twenty-seven years later, Power managed Tipp to the 2011 All-Ireland minor title. Power began his inter-county managerial career at 23 when he took over the Tipp U15s. 

Power began his senior inter-county managerial career with Wexford in 2015 but it was inevitable that Power would take over Tipp at some stage. When he was appointed senior manager at the end of 2019, it felt like Power’s destiny.

Winning last year’s Munster title was a testament to all the experience Power had accumulated as a young manager. 

But his career to date also underlined what drives, and continues to drive, the game’s top managers – absolute obsession.

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